The Rise and Fall of River and Rail transportation in Madison, Indiana.

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Was Her Death Prematurely Announced and Greatly Exaggerated?

If it were true that the “Centennial” was dismantled in 1879, as stated in Way’s Packet Directory, it must have been a great shock to Captain T. A. (Thomas) Davidson, who in late 1881 contracted with Captain D. C. Robinson of the Madison Marine Ways to add 18 feet to her length.

The Madison Evening Courier noted on December 2, 1881:

“Captain D. C. Robinson, of the Madison Marine Ways, says the Centennial, on her way from St. Louis to Madison, will not be cut in half to be lengthened, but will receive a new stern modeled after the St. Louis & St. Paul packet Gem City. The Centennial was built from the hull of Tom Jasper, which was lengthened and widened. Her new stern will make a still further change. At present she is a 1, 300 ton boat and has been running between St. Louis and New Orleans. She will work a 17 foot bucket when she again turns a wheel.”

On December 5th the Evening Courier added,

“The big Centennial arrived here from St. Louis on Saturday night. She is to be pulled out and a new and improved stern built on her. This will add 18 feet more to her length, which will then be 320 feet, the longest boat, we believe, in the Western or Southern water, except one—the Ed Richardson, which is 325 feet long. The Centennial is probably the biggest boat our marine ways has ever tackled but with their improved machinery and newly repaired ways they will be able to manage her. Capt. T. A. Davidson and Clerk G. D. Marsh who brought the boat around will remain here while she is being repaired—our citizens will find them clever, genial gentlemen.”

Mr. G. D. Marsh stated she was as large a boat as was ever taken out here, but size was not the big problem for the Marine Ways. The river had commenced to rise in December and it continued its advance into January of 1882. Rising waters stopped work on the boat at least four times. On January 20th the worst was realized. The flood waters were up to the boiler deck and ready to flow into her cabin. A windstorm, so strong it was “pushing the river backwards” came in and the waves battered her sides. Crews worked through the night to put her in a more favorable position, and by morning it looked like she was safe. While the men waited they watched the water and rain tear apart buildings and send them careening down the river. People scrambled to higher ground and all the while the shrieking winds battered what the floods hadn’t washed away. They waited for the weather to “play out” and it finally did.

The first week of March saw the “Centennial” aswarm with carpenters and mechanics. All was progressing nicely and Captain Davidson ordered her to be measured. With the added length she was now 324 feet, 6 inches long, probably the longest boat on the river. At the end of March, after still another delay because of high water, she has been on the Ways for four months.

Finally, on the morning of April 17, 1882 the big boat made a trial trip, and departed for her line (between St. Louis and New Orleans) in the afternoon. On the 18th the Evening Courier ran this article,


The remarkable experience of the steamer Centennial since hauled out on the Marine Ways, early in the winter has attracted the attention of our people more perhaps than any vessel that has ever been on the cradles here. The repeated interruptions by water and her perilous position during the flood, created an anxiety for her safety and a sympathy for her owners among all classes of our citizens, and her name became as familiar as any of our local packets. The announcement that she would make a trial trip in front of the city yesterday before her final departure for St. Louis attracted a crowd and the shore was lined with people in front anxious to see the gallant vessel that had successfully passed through such tribulation during the past four months. About 10 o’clock yesterday morning the shrill silvery sound of her whistle at the shipyard signaled that all was ready. She backed out, straightened herself and steamed up the river, passed the city and was saluted by the spectators that lined the shore with a general waving of hats and handkerchiefs, She looked very handsome in her bright new suit of fresh paint.

After speeding her a few miles up the river to demonstrate that everything worked satisfactorily, she returned to the wharf where she took on board 3,000 bushels of coal. While at the landing she was visited by hundreds of our citizens who were courteously received and politely chaperoned over the massive vessel by Capt. Davidson and clerk George Marsh.

Her main cabin presents a handsome appearance, freshly painted in white and gilt, except the state-room doors which are purple and gold and on each door a handsome landscape view or portrait. The forward end of the cabin is ornamented with a well executed view of East St. Louis and the great bridge, and the after end with a view of South St. Louis, in all presenting the appearance of a beautiful floating panorama.

Speaking with Capt. Davidson in regard to the work upon his vessel, we expressed the hope that the aggravating delays in prosecuting the repairs had not given him an unfavorable opinion of Madison and her boat-builders. Said he, ‘I leave here with the satisfaction of knowing I have a better boat than it ever was before. My long sojourn has enabled me to form the acquaintance of some very clever gentlemen, and I can always say a good word for Madison and her boat builders. The Centennial would have been in the breakers of the flood at any other place, save one, and might have fared worse. The Madison mechanics, with D. C. Robinson directing affairs, can not fail to prosper. They do not work as rapidly, perhaps, as some other yards, but they do their work in first-class manner. With the facilities here and the cheap rate of rent and living, D. C. Robinson can make contracts and clear money where other yards would lose on the same work.’

The Centennial took away several Madisonians as a part of her crew viz: Mac Bondurant, mate; Joe Cowan, watchman; Charles and Fritz Metzheiser, cooks; Sam Medlicott, Peter Barrett, Wm. Courtney, John and Joe Sheridan, deck-men. The carpenter is Jon. Wykoff, of Keokuk, Iowa; the engineers, Ben. A. Hoffman and Oliver Bray, of St. Louis; pilots, L. T. Dix and A. Merker.

The “Centennial” was evidently not dismantled in 1879 and in 1882 she seems to be one of the larger boats on the river. When we find out what really happened to the “Centennial”, we will add an epilogue.

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